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Diseases Named after Patients

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This passionately written book (The Invention of Surgery by David Schneider) describes the giant strides medicine has made since its primitive beginnings. The broad outline of the story is familiar to most of us in a fragmented way; David Schneider provides an overarching historical review but also fleshes out the picture with telling details. Imagine the practice of medicine, say, 150 years ago, with little or no knowledge of the importance of a sterile environment, no anesthesia, no antibiotics, little awareness of disease-causing microorganisms ... It was perhaps better not to go to a doctor, as he would likely do you more harm than good with the "cutting-edge" remedies prevalent then. I have been influenced by the all-pervasive caustic criticism of modern medicine, but this book more than redressed the balance; I have been forced to revise my negative opinion. The author is a surgeon who specializes in shoulder replacement, so although there is a bias toward orthopedics, he covers all of medicine. Read it and be grateful for modern medicine, warts and all. It has its shortcomings—but its achievements are stupendous.

Schneider describes how Europe (especially Germany) was the center of medical advances until about a hundred years ago, when the United States began to overtake it and never looked back. Medicine is about people, and colorful people stride through the pages of the book. Take, for instance, the pioneering U.S. surgeon William Halsted, who experimented with cocaine as an anesthetic agent and became addicted to it. He was admitted to a sanatorium where cocaine was replaced with morphine. He was cured of cocaine addiction but remained addicted to morphine all his life. His contributions to medicine were immense, ranging from the introduction of rubber gloves for surgeons to the residency training system in the United States to radical mastectomy for cancer. There are also accounts of the humble origins of famous institutions and companies, such as Mayo Clinic and Medtronic (founded by a couple of WW2 army engineers in 1949 to service hospital equipment).

Let me now justify the title of this post. Sometimes what sticks in the mind longest after reading a book is a piece of trivia, and I will now share such an example from this book. Many diseases are named after physicians: Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, Asperger's syndrome, Wolff–Parkinson–White syndrome, and so on. Some diseases are named after places: Ebola, Lyme disease, and so on. But do you know of eponymous diseases (i.e., diseases named after persons) named after patients? These are apparently very rare.

Schneider gives the example of Lou Gehrig disease, the informal name for the neurological condition that the famous baseball player suffered from. It's formal name is amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in the United States and motor neurone disease in the United Kingdom. The most famous person with this disease is probably the late Stephen Hawking. Schneider also gives the example of a surgery named after a patient: the Tommy John surgery, also called ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) reconstruction. This surgery was first performed in 1974 on a U.S. baseball player, Tommy John.

An Internet search revealed two other diseases named after patients: Hartnup disease (also called neutral amino acid transport defect) and Mortimer's disease.

Afterword: Why are apostrophes used in some eponyms and not in others? Traditional medical nomenclature uses the apostrophe, but the modern trend is to drop it (i.e., Asperger syndrome and not Asperger's syndrome). However, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease, in particular, continue to dominate medical literature. There are passionate advocates for and against the apostrophe; I will not wade into those deep waters.


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